This discovery could well affect the entire cocoa value chain, from where and how the trees are grown to the range of personal care products that can be developed using the butter.
Reformulating the genome
Cocoa butter is a common personal care ingredient with a distinctive scent and recognizable feel. “The natural melting point of cocoa butter is close to human body temperature. This trait…provides a creamy texture to lotions applied to the skin,” explains a Penn State News item about the research.
The function and benefits of cocoa butter will be somewhat variable once adjustments to the gene are realized. With modification, the texture of cocoa butter could change, the rate at which it can deliver active ingredients could change, etc.
The Penn State scientists identified one gene, TcSAD1, that sets the melting point of cocoa butter. "We used state-of-the-art plant science techniques to gain evidence for the role of the SAD1 gene in cocoa butter biosynthesis," says Mark Guiltinan, professor of plant molecular biology, who has devoted 30 years to research on the tree.
"The other SAD genes appear to play other roles in the growth of the chocolate tree, such as flower and leaf development, where these fatty acids play important roles as key components of various membrane systems. This information can be used to develop biomarkers for screening and breeding of new cacao varieties with novel fatty acid compositions of cocoa butter," he explains.
Before and after
A prior partnership with the International Cocoa Genome Consortium led to the first description of a “stearoyl-acyl carrier protein desaturase (SAD) gene family…in the chocolate tree,” according to the Penn State News item.
For this latest project, Guiltinan joined forces with Siela Maximova, senior scientist and professor of horticulture, as well as Yufan Zhang, who took a doctoral degree in plant biology earlier this year. The team’s research findings appear online this month in the Plant Genetics and Genomics section of Frontiers in Plant Science and explore the SAD gene family in particular.